One small post changed me from a guy at the end of the bar ranting about wine, restaurants, and food politics, to a guy on a computer ranting about wine, restaurants, and food politics. That post was entitled Those Silly French and was written in response to friends asking for my opinion on the first Michelin guide to New York. Well another group of stars has been awarded and again my computer lit up with people asking my thoughts.
First, let me start with a conspiracy theory about industrial culture because these are the things that make my world go round:
If I were involved in the world’s largest tire company, when I met with my local government to discuss things like tax credits and pensions (as I understand it France is very involved in these areas with French-based companies) I would find it an advantage to be able to make the case that for seventy-five years I have worked to promote travel to France. I would also like to be able to point out that what started as a little book to encourage Frenchmen to wear out their tires driving all over the country in the summer travel season, successful due to its reputation for integrity, has turned into a reason people come to France to spend food dollars at an unrivaled rate. If this were one of my bargaining chips, which it assuredly would be, as the guide grew in popularity and became a viable business I would grow it carefully ever mindful that, to the end of remaining a bargaining tool for my actual business (tires), it would need to remain a significant motivator of the belief that fine food is available more in France than anywhere else.
I think Michelin is producing a French guidebook trying to establish itself in foreign markets, and I think part of this motivation may simply be to lend credibility to the French guide. When the whole world is saying there are almost a dozen restaurants in Spain operating at a level beyond all but a few places in France, what better way to quell these worries and keep your credibility than to acknowledge the irrefutable successes with some stars? And if the people start insisting that New York and other major US cities have as many great places as Paris while Parisian chefs are turning their backs on your ratings, what better way to keep your hold as the definitive voice on fine dining than to start a New York book?
Ok, that’s out of my system. Going forward let’s assume Michelin is just trying to grow a successful business. The perceived integrity referred to in the conspiracy above was based on a couple of simple truths that have been seeing some rocky times as of late. Some assumptions regarding Michelin’s ratings have proven to be false in recent years, such as that there was a huge anonymous staff traveling the world of dining, ever on the quest for places worth traveling to, or that Michelin inspectors had actually visited all the places reviewed. Then there were the rules that applied almost without exception, which I thought mattered most. Rules like that all restaurants must start at a base one star level and that only after multiple visits and time proving they could perform at the top level could they be advanced, which meant that if you were a three star Michelin restaurant you had achieved at a top level for many years with many and constant inspections.
Starting a New York book with any three star restaurants, let alone including one that was in its first two years of existence, belied any integrity claimed. This simple move more than any other proved that Michelin did not hold this book or this place to the same level that it holds its French books and restaurants, implying that the folks there don’t see equal merit in our food (unless of course they were giving additional credence and merit to some restaurants simply for being French, which also implies a lack of understanding of American cuisine).
Then there is their choice to do a New York guide (and this year one for San Francisco) and not a US one. Keeping in mind that Michelin is meant to be a travel guide about restaurants, there are at least five restaurants in Chicago I do travel for solely and regularly. Based simply on reputation, there are another ten in California I plan to travel for (when I do visit you can be sure I will let you know if I found them worth the trip). There are also two places in Boston I travel for, one in DC (and another two I would like to). There is at least one place in every major city that is worth a diversion to for a meal. Here we bump into my conspiracy again: if you properly try to assess the restaurants of America and not isolate them by city but simply apply the criteria of destination eating to the nation, towns like Philly alone should get a star each for its cheese-steak places (if you are there you should definitely try one at either Pat’s, Gino’s or Carl’s), not to mention at least two (I would say three Michelin stars are deserved) for Le Bec Fin. Fairly analyzing a region even as small as the original thirteen colonies would blow out the bloated count for France by comparison, which would be dangerous to the service Michelin provides of keeping people traveling to France above all other countries for destination dining.
So what do I think of the current list for New York? Well you are still reading so:
As I understand it the meaning of the stars is:
One: if you are in this city this is a very good place well worth visiting
Two: if you are near this city go to this place
Three: this place is so good it is worth traveling to that city simply for the experience of dining at
Applying this notion of the stars here are my thoughts
Jean Georges: I would travel for this place and happily add the cost of travel to my dinner.
Le Bernardin: still haven’t traveled from the Village to try it.
Per Se: went, was let down and have not forgiven; one of the reasons I find it hard to cross 23rd Street.
Bouley: very good, when I am already in its neighborhood visiting friends I happily go.
Daniel: I would travel from the Village.
Del Posto: good or bad it is a unique experience worth traveling to at least once.
Masa: hands down the greatest single meal I have had was here, but it is such a destination place sometimes I wish I lived far away so I would be forced to seek it out more.
Annisa: no idea.
Aureole: they have wine fairies in Vegas right? That has always kept me from taking it seriously.
A Voce: travel to get fleeced by a wine list? yeah, right.
Babbo: goes without saying that people travel for this place; sooner or later people on their way to New York ask me for any secrets I might know about getting a res, especially those who have been already.
Café Boulud: I would cross neighborhood boundaries for this place.
Café Gray: still haven’t traveled past the other places in the mall for it, but haven’t given up.
Country Restaurant: had a bad time at the bar early and haven’t traveled past that.
Craft: makes no sense to me to go back to a place that puts the job of the chef on the diner, but this is New York and people like control so if that’s what you’re into it may be worth a stop when you are traveling to a dungeon or some other place that puts all the decisions on you.
Cru: I find it hard to believe there are many better meals to be had in New York than I have had at Cru so I travel there regularly, in fact I often go there first when on my way back from traveling.
Danube: haven’t been, know I should but it involves traveling past places I love.
Dévi: I really like Devi and have traveled at least eight blocks to eat there.
Etats-Unis: isn’t that on the Upper East Side, pretty much would rather go to Chicago.
Fiamma Osteria: it’s good.
Fleur de Sel: I love not having to travel much to go to this place, the Monday night wine deal may be worth commuter airfare, though.
Gotham Bar & Grill: I can think of few more definitively organically born of New York places, so I guess if that’s what you want it is well worth the travel.
Gramercy Tavern: People very often travel from far away to join me for meals here.
Jewel Bako: can’t travel past Degustation.
Kurumazushi: news of it has yet to travel to me.
La Goulue: got to look into this one.
Lever House: no idea.
Modern (The): no travel, no thanks.
Oceana: great meal but have never seen cause to travel back.
Perry Street: well I love spending food dollars at JGV so hard to say.
Peter Luger: travel to Brooklyn for a steak that variant in quality? Sure, as long as it is with a big group of people so excited by the travel they never seem to notice.
Picholine: as long as our USDA rules remain as they are for fresh cheese and hunted game it will be worth travel from all over.
Saul: if they ever do Michelin Brooklyn I may make a journey there to hit a couple places.
Spotted Pig: stopped traveling there early on; nice food but this is New York, pubs with good grub are easy to come by.
Sushi of Gari: heard great stuff, not enough to travel that far yet.
Veritas: you love wine, especially Parker wines? May be better spent travel dollars than Napa or Bordeaux.
Vong: not in a long time.
Wallsé: involves traveling past places I know to be cool, but its on my list.
wd~50: few people in the world with an opinion don’t agree that Wylie is pretty serious among those changing the face of world dining. You tell me, is that worth traveling for?
Without going too deep into the list I will simply mention three places unique to New York that I believe should be experienced by all, are worth traveling for, and could only exist here: Blue Hill, Savoy, and Hearth.
So I guess on their second attempt rather than seeming crazy the folks at Michelin just seem not to understand New York. Then again, if your goal is to understand New York, would you look to the French for advice in the first place?